Here's a great piece from The New Yorker which talks about the psychology of power grid failures and blackouts. Perfect, considering there's one hell of a blackout in THE PLAGUE.
Ask an Academic: Blackouts
Posted by Ian Crouch
Everyone, it seems, has a blackout story, a tale of what happened when the power was cut and suddenly everything had changed. Though more than forty years have passed, David E. Nye still remembers sitting in the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in 1965, at the outset of the Great Northeastern Blackout: “I suspected it was a misguided fraternity prank, and I was a bit peeved because I was preparing for a midterm exam,” he writes in his new book, “When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America,” which will be published by M.I.T. on March 31st. Nye—a professor of history and the chair of the Center for American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark—has long studied how technological innovation shapes culture. This week, we spoke about the blackout’s place in popular consciousness.
I lived through the 1965 and the 1977 blackouts, plus many smaller ones caused by storms, and I also used to talk to my father and others about what it was like before electrification. He grew up in rural New Hampshire. Roughly half of all Americans still lived without it until the end of the nineteen-twenties. And so, after writing books about how the United States was electrified and about Thomas Edison, it seemed logical to write about how people respond to blackouts, and about what it means when the electrical system goes down or is turned off. Every time we invent a technology, we also invent the possibility of its failure. The Wright brothers, it might be said, also invented the plane crash. It's just that we usually focus on how things work, not how they fail.
Why are blackouts so memorable?
Most of the time people are living inside their heads and pursuing some multiple agendas. When the lights fail, unexpectedly we are forced to live entirely in the present, to improvise, to deal with the people right around us instead of ideas in our heads or friends at e-mail remove. Moreover, the present we confront in a blackout is transformed; the world has the same shapes but different shadows and a new soundscape. In New York, the din of subways, stereos, TVs, and several million motors and appliances has suddenly disappeared. This de-familiarized world grabs our attention, it forces us into the now, and the scene is unforgettable later.
You write that blackouts can reveal in people “a spontaneous capacity for kindness and civic solidarity.” Why is that?
I have been told countless stories of neighbors who hardly ever spoke, suddenly reaching out and helping each other or just having a good, long conversation for the first time. One woman told me that she lived in a building near Washington Square and hardly knew anyone else there until the 1965 blackout. That evening everyone gathered in the one apartment that had a gas stove in the kitchen, and they had an impromptu banquet. The friendships forged that evening lasted for many years. In other words, a blackout is not merely an interruption, it pushes people into a new situation, and whether caused by an ice storm in Maine or an overloaded urban system during a heat wave, it can end up making the community stronger.
Some blackouts have led to unrest, though.
Blackouts do not cause certain effects. It is more like people are suddenly thrust into a darkened room where they cannot continue with what they were doing a moment before. They can “read” this darkened space in an infinite number of ways, but a good deal of what they see and sense there is projected from their own minds. If people fear impoverishment and sense that the community is breaking down, as was the case in some parts of New York City in 1977, they may see the blackout as an opportunity for looting. In such cases, the blackout reveals that the bonds of community have frayed to the breaking point.
You write about how the development of the power grid has changed the way we think about night and darkness. Why are we afraid of, or indifferent to, the dark?
This is a very large question, actually, and a detailed answer goes back to pre-modern times. Human beings are not adapted to see as well in the dark as some other species. Before there was much artificial illumination, people did not like to venture out in the dark if they could avoid it, and the night was “peopled” with witches, ghosts, and the like. Indifference is a modern response to the night, made possible by artificial illumination, as people can live in a cocoon of conveniences and quite possibly never even properly see the night. Light pollution is so widespread in the United States that few places now are really dark.
Are blackouts a useful tool for terrorists?
In films and novels, terrorists take out electrical installations far more often than they have in reality. Partly, this is because nature is far more comprehensive in destroying the system than any terrorist could be. A major ice storm will tear down lines everywhere, while bombs will only take out one transmission tower at a time. Utility companies have terrific repair crews who are able to get the juice up and running again. A terrorist who looks hard at this situation will see that attacking the electrical infrastructure may not give much “bang for the buck” compared to other alternatives. Remember, too, that electrical systems have some redundancy built into them, i.e. there are multiple power sources and usually multiple routes to move electricity over the wires, so even before repairs are made, many customers will start getting service again.
What are the biggest challenges facing the American power grid in the coming decades?
Historically, U.S. demand for electricity almost doubled every decade from 1900 until the nineteen-seventies. This has meant, for example, that the nation needed twice as much generating capacity in 1970 as it did in 1960. This explosive growth was unsustainable, and slowed down somewhat after 1970, but not nearly enough. The challenge of the future is to “de-market” electricity, to show people how to live well, even better, while using less of it. In the meantime, the grid needs to be upgraded. At first, it was built a bit haphazardly. Each local utility sought to be largely self-sufficient, buying and selling small surpluses. The problem now is to build a system that allows every consumer to also potentially become a producer. The grid of the future also must find a way to incorporate solar and wind power. This has already been done on a small scale in Germany. However, even with the present grid, Americans would be O.K. if they learned to curb demand.
What can people do?
“Earth Hour,” which comes the last Saturday of March every year, is so important. On that night, people in ninety-two countries will signal to their politicians and corporations that they want to find ways to use less energy, generate less CO2, and live in a sustainable way. The U.S. has been slow to get involved in this “greenout” movement, which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. It is really strong in Australia, Canada, and some parts of Europe. So consider turning down the power for one hour that night and send a message!